Have you ever opened the refrigerator, seen a dizzying of fresh vegetables and healthy proteins that might require some preparation and effort to make, and proceeded to instead simply take the easy route and perhaps grab a dark chocolate bar with a jar of nut butter?
Have you ever been in the middle of a race, such as a triathlon or marathon, and realized you have absolutely no clue how much you’ve eaten, how much you’d hydrated, or even what mile or kilometer marker you’re at?
Have you ever been in the middle of workout, like a long run, and suddenly stopped to begin walking because your brain simply seemed to shut down?
Blame your busy life, blame your muscles or blame your gut, but the stark truth is that each of the scenarios you’ve just read are perfect examples of what can happen when your mind is not properly tuned and your brain is broken.
The Central Governor Model of Fatigue
When it comes to achieving peak physical performance or pushing yourself to the extreme limits of endurance exhaustion, what do you think is the most important part of your physiology?
The surprising answer is “none of the above”.
The ultimate arbiter of fatigue is actually situated right between your ears. That’s right: it’s your brain.
The concept of the brain being the central cause of fatigue is a theory I first encountered when I interviewed Dr. Timothy Noakes in the podcast episode, “How You Can Use The “Central Governor” To Tap Into Your Muscle’s Hidden Potential.” In this episode, Dr. Noakes explains how being tired can all be in your mind, and that you can actually trick your body into exercising for a longer period of time, going harder, or lifting heavier, if you “distract” it with techniques like counting to 20, 50 or 100 over and over again, focusing on a small intermediate goal like the next telephone pole, street sign or repetition, listening to driving music, engaging in repetitive self-talk, or even using mental visualization exercises before your big workout or event.
What Dr. Noakes calls the “Central Governor” model of fatigue is based on the fact that if your brain or your heart run out of oxygen or experience sustained periods of hypoxia (low oxygen), then you can die or undergo permanent damage to these organs. So your brain (the central governor) is wired to limit how hard, how heavy or how long you can go by reducing your nervous system’s recruitment of muscle fibers. And this reduced recruitment causes the sensation of fatigue. Your brain simply says “stop” and your body obeys.
It’s possible that the fatigue goes beyond simply oxygen, and may also be based on the amount of ketones (fatty acids) or trace amounts of glucose available to your vital organs – so you can think of the central governor model as a kind of survival mechanism in which your brain makes a conscious effort to limit energy expenditure in order to save fuel for other precious organs such as your heart, your lungs and your brain.
The diagram below shows the vicious cycle that can ensue when your brain begins to shut down circulation to your heart and your muscles.
Interestingly, the fatigue brought on by your central governor can be compounded if you are distracted by other details, such as problem solving, complexity of an exercise or movement, or stressful thoughts about work, family or life.
Dr. Samuele Marcore, a UK sports scientist, believes that because of this, fatigue can be a perception of your mind just as much as a physiological state. He bases this on the fact that the anterior cingulate cortex in your brain is the area responsible for control of your heart rate and breathing, but also the area responsible for making complex decisions, paying attention to detail, and doing things like figuring out if you are supposed to be using your right leg or left leg, interpreting a financial spreadsheet, or not getting distracted by commotion going on around you. In other words, the more you’re requiring your brain to do at any given time, the faster it’s probably going to fatigue – regardless of how fit your muscles, lungs or heart are.
Dr. Marcore argues that this kind of physical fatigue is simply a matter conflict resolution – a struggle between the part of your brain that wants you to quit and the part that wants you to keep going – and that the more “decision-making” fatigue you’re subjected to during exercise, the faster you’re going to physically fail.
This belief that fatigue is more a state of mind than an actual physiological state makes perfect sense when you watch runners who seem to be on the brink of complete physical break-down suddenly shift gears into into an all-out sprint for the last 200-to-300 yards of a 5K race – when they looked like they could not run another step just a few moments before.
Shocking The Brain Into Submission
A brand new study on cyclists adds even more credence to the idea that your brain is ultimately responsible for fatigue. In this study, Brazilian sports scientists used a non-invasive form of brain stimulation called transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) to apply a tiny electrical current to the cortex in the brain (6). Remember, this cortex is the primary culprit when it comes to exercise fatigue (5). The idea was that this stimulation would briefly interrupt the way neurons in the cortex communicate with each other, and distract the brain from shutting down the body. Of course, there was also a control group of cyclists that also had the electrodes attached, but didn’t get any stimulation.
So what were the results of this brain tweaking? After 20 minutes of real or fake brain stimulation, the cyclists completed an all-out ride to exhaustion. And sure enough – the cyclists who underwent the electrical stimulation had significantly lower heart rates, lower perceived exertion and a 4% higher power output (that may sound small, but is actually huge for a cyclist).
The researchers noted that this increased performance may go above and beyond mere “distraction” of the brain, but may actually be caused by a mingling of pleasure and pain centers in the brain. This is because the right side of the cortex is strongly linked to feelings of pain and physical exertion, while the left side of the cortex is linked to pleasant feelings and emotions that occur when you one see someone smile, or hear your favorite song, or cuddle up with loved one.
What Is The Zone?
Interestingly, this feeling of pleasure or happiness in the presence of physical exertion is very similar to what is often described being “in The Zone”.
In psychology, being in The Zone”is a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the entire process (7). When an athlete reaches the zone during physical performance, they often achieve their personal bests, while describing their performance as “effortless”. And the zone is not just an “airy-fairy” state – in sports performance laboratories, the 8-12 Hz alpha brain waves have been shown to be correlated with these zone-like states of relaxed alertness.
So let’s say you want to override your central governor, distract your brain, and enter the coveted Zone so that you can push your body and mind beyond what you’ve ever imagined you’re capable of achieving? And let’s say you want to do it without wearing a giant cap full of electrodes and undergoing mild shock therapy treatment?
The fact is that in the same way that you must fix your gut prior to giving it the thousands of calories necessary for fueling huge amounts of physical activity, you must also fix your brain prior to asking it to allow your body to perform amazing feats of physical performance. So let’s dig into the two ways your brain breaks, and exactly what you can do about it.
The Two Ways Your Brain Breaks
As you now know, it’s very obvious that your brain is the primary determinant of where your true performance capabilities lie – not to mention that a well-functioning, optimally tuned brain is also pretty darn important when it comes to your quality of life, your work productivity, your communication skills, your problem solving abilities and much more.
But unfortunately, most of us walk around with broken, inflamed, poorly functioning and poorly trained brains. This is usually due a combination of two factors:
1. Neurotransmitter Problems
2. HPA Axis Dysfunction
If both these issues are addressed, then your brain tissue, nerve cells and neurons will be healthy enough to optimally process information and seamlessly communicate with your body during a workout or a race, healthy enough for you to train your brain to resist getting distracted by morning work or tempting foods, and healthy enough for your mind to allow you to experience huge mental and physical performance breakthroughs.
So let’s learn how to fix both these issues, shall we?
How Nerves Communicate
Before understanding neurotransmitter problems, you need to understand how your nerves actually communicate with one another. Obviously this chapter is not meant to be a comprehensive primer on the nervous system, but it’s important that you know why neurotransmitters are so dang important.
Like the wires in your home electrical system, nerve cells make connections with one another in tiny circuits called neural pathways. But unlike the wires in your home, these nerve cells do not touch, but instead come very close together at a synapse (pictured below). At the synapse, the two nerve cells are separated by a small gap, which is called a synaptic cleft. The sending neuron is called the presynaptic cell (in this case, an axon), while the receiving neuron is called the postsynaptic cell (in this case, a dendrite).
In a one-way direction across the synapse from the presynaptic cell to postsynaptic cell, your body sends chemical messages using neurotransmitters, this is called synaptic transmission.
Let’s look at an example of synaptic transmission that uses a neurotransmitter which you may have heard of before: serotonin.
In this case, the pre-synaptic cell would make serotonin from an amino acid called tryptophan and then packages the serotonin into vesicles located in end terminals. When a signal called an action potential arrives from your brain, that signal passes down presynaptic cell into the end terminals (3).
At this point, when the signal arrives, the serotonin is released and passes across the synaptic cleft, where it binds with special proteins called receptors on the outside of the postsynaptic cell. If enough serotonin binds to receptors, a threshold level is reached, and the action potential will be propagated in that cell and move on to the next cell. In the case of something like your muscles moving, the action potential would eventually reach skeletal muscle fibers and cause a contraction.
So that the nerve doesn’t remain in a constantly “turned on” state, the remaining serotonin molecules in the synaptic cleft then get destroyed by special enzymes in the cleft called monoamine oxidase (MAO) and catechol-o-methyl transferase (COMT). Some serotonin also gets taken back up by specific transporters on the presynaptic cell (this is called “reuptake”). All of this enables the nerve signal to be turned “off” and readies the synapse to receive another action potential.
Of course, in addition to serotonin, there are many other types of neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine, norepinephrine, dopamine and gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA). But let’s say you have a neurotransmitter deficit of serotonin, which would compromise synaptic transmission of any nerve signals in your body that are dependent on serotonin. Similar to a deficit of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine, this type of serotonin deficit can quickly create:
-Ease of distraction or ADD
Millions of people walk around every day with some kind of neurotransmitter deficiency or suboptimal nerve cell communication. You’ve probably experienced at least one of these issues before, right? The good news is that you don’t have to check yourself into a mental institution. Here are 8 ways that you can fix these kind of neurotransmitter problems yourself.
8 Ways To Fix Neurotransmitter Problems
1. Taper Off or Avoid Anti-Depressants
Prozac, Sarafem, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Lexapro, Effexor, Cymbalta, Pristiq…the list of popular anti-depressant drugs goes on and on – with hundreds of millions of prescriptions handed out and billions of dollars in sales.
I wouldn’t even include this issue in the book unless I had personally done consults with many very active individuals who are either on anti-depressants, depressed, or showing signs of depression. Perhaps it’s the nature of the beast – us physically active people tend to rely on exercise for a high, and when that’s missing or we’re not fulfilled by it anymore, we can tend to get down. And at that point, anti-depressants may seem like an attractive solution.
Now I’m not a doctor and I’m not recommending that if you’re on an anti-depressant you quit cold turkey, but if you want to gradually taper yourself off these medications, you should certainly pay attention to the other 7 ways you can address neurotransmitter issues
Here’s why anti-depressants are such a problem: they work in one of two ways – either by increasing the brain levels of serotonin or they block re-uptake of serotonin. That is why most of them are called “SSRI’s”, or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors.
These SSRI’s cause a short term “flooding” of the brain with serotonin, as well as a very fast degrading or breaking down of serotonin as it is left to hang around in the synaptic cleft.
As a result, not only are more and more levels of serotonin eventually required as serotonin receptors become desensitized to the constant flux of neurotransmitters, but there are also lower levels of naturally available serotonin as your biology begins to rely on external sources of the serotonin (1). When you do actually release your own serotonin, it winds up getting broken down far more quickly than normal, due to the fact that the enzymes in the synaptic clef have been “trained” to rapidly break down serotonin.
So you not only need constantly increasing dosages of anti-depressants, but you also end up depleting 40-60% of the serotonin receptors in your brain! In addition, the serotonin receptors in your liver, kidneys and colon can become damaged by anti-depressant use, which affects your delicate gut-brain balance and your regulation of appetite. It’s a vicious cycle!
There’s a great deal of evidence out there that anti-depressants don’t really work well anyways. Meta-analyses of studies on anti-depressants have revealed that SSRI’s have no clinically meaningful advantage over a placebo, and claims that anti-depressants are more effective in more severe conditions of depression have little evidence to support them. The few studies that have shown anti-depressants to have a small degree of superiority over placebo were poorly designed studies.
2. Moderate Stimulants
Low dose caffeine can improve mental performance and protect against Alzheimer’s, so you don’t need to avoid it entirely (unless you are in a state of adrenal fatigue) . But acting in a similar manner to anti-depressants, high doses of caffeine, ephedrine, ephedra, guarana, Ritalin, and any other central nervous system stimulant can flood the brain with neurotransmitters, creating neurotransmitter resistance or long term receptor damage (8).
There’s a reason that I personally drink no more than 8-10 ounces of black coffee each day, and switch to decaf for at least 1 week every couple month. People who use frequently use coffee, tea, soda or energy drinks actually change their brain’s chemistry and physical characteristics over time. Because it is both water and fat soluble, caffeine can easily cross your blood-brain barrier, and as you dump more and more caffeine into your body, your brain cells actually grow more receptors for a neurotransmitter called adenosine.
Adenosine causes feelings of tiredness, but as you can see below, the structure of caffeine closely resembles adenosine – so caffeine can easily fit into your brain cells’ receptors for adenosine. With it’s receptors constantly plugged up by caffeine, adenosine can no longer bind to those receptors and cause the feeling of tiredness (9). Unfortunately, your body’s response is to create more and more adenosine receptors – so you eventually need more and more caffeine to block the feeling of tiredness – and over time, you build up tolerance.
The good news is that to kick a caffeine habit and “reset” your adenosine receptors, you only need to get through about 7-12 days of caffeine avoidance, which is why I recommend taking week long breaks from coffee and other similar stimulants every couple months.
3. Avoid Toxin Exposure
Whether it’s mycotoxins from moldy coffee, the fragrance of your cologne or perfume wafting into your nasal chambers, or the air freshener hanging your car, toxins affect product of neurotransmitters and sensitivity to neurotransmitters, causing brain damage, brain fog, and fuzzy thinking.
To refresh your mind, a few of the biggies are:
-Use organic fruits and vegetables when possible (or wash them in a water and vinegar solution)
-Use natural cleaning chemicals (lemon juice, vinegar, baking soda etc.)
-Use natural personal care products (avoid parabens, dyes, fragrances, etc.)
-Use home air and water filters.
-Use holistic dentistry.
Once you begin to make these changes, you’ll find it very interesting that when you do encounter an attack against your neurotransmitters, such as walking through the fragrances section of a store in the mall, you’ll be extremely sensitive and notice it almost immediately. It’s important to your body in these situations. If it looks, tastes or smells synthetic, avoid it.
4. Avoid Sensory Overload
21st century sensory overload in the form of sounds, rapid visual and auditory effects from television, movies, computer games, electronic monitors flickering faster than the eye can detect, radio and EMF waves, fluorescent lighting, a hurried lifestyle, and excessive work all require your brain to constantly modulate these high levels of sensory bombardment that it would never have encountered in a more ancestral setting.
Your brain must calm itself down from all this stimuli using it’s own precious supply of calming, inhibitory neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA. This overstimulation has a significant impact on neurotransmitters and neurotransmitter receptors. So consider the following:
Do you listen to loud music while you’re exercising?
Do you have a steady diet of fast-moving, exciting or violent movies or video games, especially before bed?
Do you play lots of computer games, often for long periods of time, such as several hours?
Do you spend much of your day staring at a computer monitor?
Do you constantly have music such as the radio or streaming music stations playing in the background?
Does your home or workplace constantly have artificial, fluorescent lighting turned on?
If so, then go back and read the section in Chapter 8 on mitigating the effect of much of this EMF. Do not be afraid of silence, quiet and rest. Do not be afraid to unplug.
Take time to breathe.
5. Fix Your Gut
Your second brain is in your gut.
The enteric nervous system in your gut uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and in fact 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is in the gut. This makes sense when you consider that in the nine meters from your esophagus to your anus, there are about 100 million neurons, more than in either your spinal cord or your entire peripheral nervous system!
This also explains why irritable bowel syndrome, something that afflicts nearly every active individual now and then, arises in part from too much serotonin in your gut – a neurotransmitter imbalance (as you can probably imagine, this is why anti-depressants can cause serious gut issues).
Not only does your gut lining produce neurotransmitters, but the billions of bacteria living in your gut also churn out neurotransmitters. So if your gut lining is damaged or your gut flora is out of balance, then you are at serious risk for neurotransmitters deficiencies and imbalances.
The best step you can take to fix these gut-brain issues are to listen to your body, test, and fix the issues.
6. Replace Building Blocks
Neurotransmitters are primarily comprised of amino acids, vitamin B, and minerals. A deficiency of any of these three crucial compounds can leave you with inadequate neurotransmitter building blocks.
Some of the best high quality amino acid sources include grass-fed beef, wild salmon, eggs from pastured chickens, raw organic dairy, almond and almond butter, quinoa, and spirulina or chlorella sources. I’ve found that many people who struggle with sleep issues or motivation issues that are tied to neurotransmitter issues also benefit from the use of essential amino acids. When I’m about to head into a workout that I know threatens to beat up my brain with intense levels of focus or competition, I usually take 5-10 grams of Master Amino Pattern,which is an optimally-balanced blend of all 8 essential amino acids.
In order for the nervous system to synthesize and circulate the neurotransmitters formed by amino acid precursors, you need to have adequate intake of B complex vitamins, and Vitamins B6, B12, and folate are especially important in nerve metabolism. Excellent food sources of vitamin B6 include bell
peppers, turnip greens, and spinach; excellent sources of folate include spinach, parsley, broccoli, beets, turnip and mustard greens, asparagus, romaine lettuce, calf’s liver, and lentils, and excellent sources of B12 include calf’s liver and snapper. For Vitamin B supplementation, I recommend either aliposomal Vitamin B12 spray, or an antioxidant/Vitamin B powdered blend.
You’ll get very good doses of minerals from a well balanced diet that includes a broad spectrum of the real foods and nutrient dense sources listed in Chapter 11. But if you’re frequently sweatiing or under high amounts of exercise or lifestyle stress (remember that adrenal stress depletes minerals), then you should also include a mineral rich source of protein such as a goat-based protein powder (goat protein is higher in minerals), and a daily dose of either a trace liquid mineral supplement and liberal use of a high quality salt, such as Himalayan sea salt.
7. Neurotransmitter Repletion
Often, simply eating adequate protein or using essential amino acids supplements is not enough. This can be the scenario in cases of depression, insomnia or severe lack of motivation. In these cases, neurotransmitter repletion via amino acid therapy is something that can be effective, but should ideally be done under medical supervision, because unless you use the proper ratios, you can actually worsen neurotransmitter imbalances and make issues worse – even if you might feel better temporarily.
One example of neurotransmitter repletion with an amino acid blend that can be helpful for insomnia, depression or lack of motivation is taking 3000mg Tyrosine and 300mg 5-HTP, split into three daily doses. There are several supplements that actually include Tyrosine and 5-HTP in the exact ratios you need them, including Travacor by Nutriscience (my preferred blend), Neuro-5HTP by Biotics and CraveArrest by Designs For Health.
Another example of neurotransmitter repletion would be using a supplement called NeuroReplete to balance catecholamines and increase serotonin then combining it with CysReplete to increase catecholamine synthesis and D-5 Mucuna to increase dopamine synthesis. This gets a little more advanced than the options above, so keep reading for the warning and disclaimer.
You shouldn’t just jump into this repletion without knowing what you are doing. For example, taking only 5-HTP or improperly balanced 5-HTP can deplete dopamine. Taking only L-dopa or improperly balanced L-dopa depletes serotonin, sulfur-based amino acids, L-tryptophan, and tyrosine. Administration of high amounts of sulfur-based amino acids can deplete serotonin and dopamine.
Dr. Daniel Kalish is a real expert when it comes to neurotransmitter repletion therapy, and I’d highly recommend you visit the Kalish Institute website, read the Kalish Method book or speak with a licensed Kalish practitioner prior to experimenting too much with this stuff. Another very good resource to learn more about neurotransmitter repletion is NeuroAssist.com.
You can actually test your neurotransmitter levels if you want to see what you might be deficient in. The test I recommend is available from DirectLabs and is the NeuroAdrenal Expanded test. It will screen for the salivary hormones DHEA and Cortisol, along with urinary neurotransmitters Epinephrine, Norepinephrine, Dopamine, DOPAC, Serotonin, 5HIAA, Glycine, Taurine, GABA, Glutamate, PEA, and Histamine.
Finally, if you are interested in how to combine a highly accurate, gold-standard form of urinary neurotransmitter testing with neurotransmitter repletion, I’d recommend you check out LabDBS.com,
8. Lube The Nerves With Fats
In Chapter 4, you learned that one of the ways to enhance the speed with which your brain communicates with your body and muscles is to care for the health of your nerves. Your nerves are wrapped in sheaths called myelin sheaths, and a diet for a healthy nervous system should be comprised of specific nutrients that support the formation of these myelin sheaths, and also the health of the nervous system as a whole.
After all, it doesn’t matter how many neruotransmitters you make if the action potentials they are propagating can’t be adequately transmitted because you have broken down, degraded myelin sheaths.
For this reason, I not only recommend following the fat percentage intake recommendations but I also recommend including a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is particularly important in building the myelin sheath structure and preventing degrading and breakdown of nerve cells.
Flax seeds, walnuts, kale collard greens, and winter squash are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, but the amount of DHA actually absorbed from seeds, nuts and plants can be relatively low. Better sources of more readily available omega-3 fatty acids and DHA include salmon, sardines, cloves, grass-fed beef, halibut, shrimp, cod, tuna and (especially for vegans or vegetarians), algae-based DHA supplements such as EnergyBits or marine phytoplankton. Other foods that support neuronal membranes and myelin sheath health due to their high content of oleic acids include olive oil, almonds, pecans, macadamias, & avocados.
So there you have it: avoid anti-depressants, modulate stimulants, avoid toxins, avoid sensory overload, fix your gut, replace building blocks, eat healthy fats, and, if necessary, replete with neurotrasmitter therapy. You now know how to enable your nerve cells to be highly tuned communicators, ready to listen and respond appropriately to the commands from your brain.